More Commonplaces

Yesterday. the scintillating* Alan Jacobs’s first post went live on The Atlantic website (from Atlantis to Atlantic — one letter makes a big difference, eh?), on a topic that many of my former students, and many former denizens of the web circles in which I started out, would probably recognise. Alan connects the commonplace books of days gone by to Tumblr, Evernote, Instapaper, and so on. He’s not the first to notice this, of course; our brother Tom Matrullo started his Commonplaces blog way, way back in olden times, when was free hosting via the Radio platform. And I used to require students in some of my classes — particularly in the Early Church History class — to maintain a commonplace book for storing the noteworthy quotations from their readings.
Alan also notes that Warren Ellis’s guest columnist Jess Nevins discusses Lord Byron’s participation in the commonplace-book culture ( = proto-fanfic culture) of the early nineteenth century. (And still later, Alan tweeted that he was thinking about hand-writing his favourite quotations and posting photos of those to his Tumblr.)
So if a long time ago I gave an assignment to keep a commonplace book, or to write a pseudo-Pauline epistle (an even earlier example of fanfic!)… pedagogical idiosyncrasy doesn’t entirely explain what-all was going on. You were keeping alive literary genres that went millennia back in history, and which have particularly flourished with the advent of digital media.
* ‘Groucho, use “scintillate” in a sentence.’
   ‘Lucy flirts and teases all evening, but she doesn’t scintillate.’

1 thought on “More Commonplaces

  1. It’s easier to say how to make a commonplace book than why one might do so. The idea of copying something out in one’s own hand as a way of replicating the production of the thought is part of it. Another part might be some deliberately vague notion that if something seems worthy of entering a commonplace book, that’s because it is a piece of a larger mosaic – if one lives long enough, perhaps one will actually discern a pattern. Kind of archaeology reverse engineered. But the greatest commonplace book has to be Walter Benjamin’s Arcades. All those found things, in the process of assuming a vast order, a kind of replica of a city, itself a reflection of the mind of the finder. Labyrinths to find ourselves lost in.

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